Thursday, September 13, 2018
DEAD SHEEP COMEDY CLUB
DEAD SHEEP COMEDY CLUB
"SET LIST" - EDINBURGH FESTIVAL
RADIO 5's "FIGHTING TALK"
RADIO 5's "FIGHTING TALK"
RADIO 5's "FIGHTING TALK"
RADIO 5's "FIGHTING TALK"
RADIO 5's "FIGHTING TALK"
RADIO 5's "FIGHTING TALK"
MACMILLAN CANCER BENEFIT
CRIAG FERGUSON SHOW - EDINBURGH
COLLECTING FOR MACMILLAN CANCER
Thursday, September 06, 2018
Fringe Q&As: Comedian Jo Caulfield on 15 years at the Fringe, the deadpan humour of Scottish people and the reality of porn...
Comedian Jo Caulfield is offering fans a veritable trio of treats this Fringe season as she's performing not one, not two, but THREE stand-up shows during the month of August.
Amidst all the prep and sojourns to Portobello Beach, Jo took time out to answer our Q&As.
- What is your Fringe show about?
I use my shows to get things off my chest. If someone or something annoys me, it goes straight into my show. This year I’ve had far too many run-ins with bad tempered shop assistants, ridiculous service in uber-cool hip hotels, and several embarrassing experiences on holiday. I’ll be talking about relationships and how they change over time, and overhearing my husband giving his nephew advice for how to deal with women.
I’m a stand-up comedian. I don’t go for themes. There’s no bells or whistles. It’s just me and a microphone. And to be honest, if there wasn’t an audience I would still be talking!
- How many times/many years have you appeared at the Fringe?
That might seem excessive but I like the discipline of forcing myself to write a new show every 12 months. Some comedians can run with the same routines for several years (and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that) but I enjoy the excitement of continually creating something fresh.
Advice for new performers:
Eat a large breakfast. You need the fuel. Chances are you’re going to miss a meal at some point during the day.
Eat fruit. Eat bananas. Full of potassium. They release energy slowly. Apparently Gordon Strachan (Aberdeen, Man Utd, Leeds, Scotland) would eat one before every game and another at halftime.
Don’t read reviews. The audience response tells you everything you need to know.
Don’t read anyone else’s reviews. Don’t get into the trap of being jealous of someone else’s good review or secretly happy about someone else’s bad review. You are NOT in competition.
Don’t ask other performers “how their show is going” — you don’t care. And they don’t care how your show is going.
Deals are NEVER made in the Loft Bar at midnight. ‘Networking’ is for bankers and insurance salesmen.
No-one is forcing you to do this. No-one is holding a gun to your head. Relax and remember how incredibly lucky you are to be doing something you actually want to do.
- What’s your most memorable moment from the Fringe?
- What’s the worst thing about the Fringe?
It’s like putting away the Christmas decorations and thinking “There’s a whole 365 days until we can do this again. I want it NOW!”
- If you were not a performer what would you be doing?
Is watching Netflix a possible career choice? I’m good at that.
- How do you prepare for a performance?
People think comedians are all sitting backstage, swapping jokes and laughing. Not at all. They do the complete opposite. They’re sitting quietly and focusing. There is NO Keith Richards-like behaviour backstage.
This August I’ll definitely be conserving my energy because I’m doing three shows: my Stand-Up show (Killing Time), a satirical political play with Timothy Bentinck, from The Archers (Brexit) and recording another series of Stop The Press for BBC Radio Scotland.
- Favourite thing about being in Edinburgh?
Where do I start?? Walking down the Royal Mile at midnight - it’s like walking through a fairytale. The decaying urban beauty of Leith, the bars and restaurants down by The Shore, the mixture of people on Leith Walk, being able to get a bowl of homemade soup in every cafe, the deadpan humour of Scottish people where you’re not sure if they’re complimenting you or insulting you, the posh old ladies of Morningside with their Miss Jean Brodie ‘creme deal creme’ accents, and the vastly underrated Portobello Beach.
Last year I was a guest on Celebrity Mastermind. I picked Edinburgh as my specialist subject. I got every question right. I got every general knowledge question wrong, but I got every question about Edinburgh right!
Did you know the grass mounds on Leith Links were where the cannons were mounted to defend the port…?
- What’s the most Scottish thing you’ve ever done?
The haggis being piped in, the address of the haggis, Tam o’ Shanter being read out… I loved the way all that pomp and ceremony celebrating a great artist, quickly descended into a room full of men drinking whisky and arguing about football.
- Favourite Scottish food/drink?
There’s a cafe on the Beach Boulevard in Aberdeen called The Inversnecky. It’s a great place to sit outside with a mug of tea, a hot morning roll, and watch the world go by. All the locals are sitting outside. They’re still wearing their coats, but they have their hoods down. I think it’s the Aberdeen version of “going Alfresco”.
As for drink — I can (and do) drink anything. There’s so many great bars in Edinburgh. Especially down the bottom of Leith Walk. Full of old hardened drinkers. Their the kind of places where you can get an organic craft beer but there’s also a frisson of a ‘stabbing’ in the air.
My favourite bar down Leith Walk has a darts board, a pool table and Sky Sports. It’s like a creche for men. They’re all perfectly happy, because they’ve got their toys around them. Last time I was in there with my friend Alison I asked the barman if they had anything for women. He panicked, looked around, and stuttered “Ah, we’ve got crisps…will that do?”
- Sum up your show in three words
The Wee Review is Scotland’s online arts & culture magazine. They provide reviews and opinion on the performing arts across Scotland, as well as commentary on wider cultural issues, politics and society.
Jo Caulfield is a well-kent face at the Fringe. Even if you don’t know her comedy, you’ll know her from the rogue’s gallery of posters that decorate the city in August. Nowadays, she’s a local too, having moved here a few years back.
Tired comic meets grumpy local, then? Not a bit of it. Though you’d definitely forgive her some cynicism or jadedness toward the city’s annual summer shindig, Caulfield is someone still in love with the game in general, and “Edinburgh”, comedy’s very own World Cup, in particular.
“I do get excited about it, yes.”
That could be PR flannel… but probably isn’t. As we chat in one of Leith’s shoreside bars, Caulfield’s nothing if not candid. She’s generous about others, open about her own comedy craft, and expresses a solidarity for the scene that reveals her DIY roots living in a squat, playing in bands and running her own club. It’s there in the enthusiastic tone with which she describes her pre-Fringe build-up:
“I did one the other night in Ormskirk, a tiny little bar, sells out immediately because it’s only got 40 seats, perfect if I want to try out a longer story…”
“I do a really nice preview at a place that Jason Cook [comedian] runs in North Shields…”
She has it all mapped out. But this schlepping round the country is not idle routine, and it’s certainly not mere bill-paying (mainly because it often doesn’t). It’s part of a well-honed process to get Fringe-ready and to put something back into the circuit. “I need them to be there,” she says of the small promoters and the audiences they bring. And here’s why:
“There’s something about people staring at you that makes your brain edit. The words come out so much better than if I was sitting, trying to write it. I get the idea, and then I have to say it in front of people to write it.”
“It [The Fringe] absolutely forces you to write, because otherwise you’ll be on stage and you’ll go ‘I want to do my favourite material’. Well you can’t. You’ve got a show to write, so I have to do this new stuff and make thatmy favourite material to improve it.”
These days, Caulfield’s home at the Fringe is Edinburgh’s long-standing comedy HQ, The Stand. This year will mark ten years for her at the club.
“I’m very glad that I’ve found The Stand. I’d done other rooms and I couldn’t believe how little money I’d made. People say that’s not the way to look at it, but it’s my business!
Then I spoke to Tommy [Sheppard, Stand boss and now an MP]. He had this new room – the Police Club [Stand 3 for the Fringe], a perfect square room with a little bar in the corner, and because I’d already built an audience they were able to find me. I’ve been very happy there.”
Onto this year’s show then – Killing Time. Depending where you place the stress, it’s what you do when the wi-fi goes down on the train, or what a murderer says to himself before setting off for work. But for Caulfield, it’s more of a placeholder to cover her for every eventuality:
“I think of a title that sounds like me, like it has a bit of attitude to it, but vague, very vague, so that whatever I want to talk about can be in there. Some people go ‘well, it’s about when I went through my wardrobe and I thought all these clothes tell a story…’ Mine are never like that. Mine are always opinion and stand-up.”
“There’s always something goes through it so I can tie things up at the end. You do it and do it and then go ‘there seems to be a lot about this’ or ‘the attitude is this’ but it’s always just real life stuff. Anything that irritates me or makes me think ‘that’s a bit weird’.”
As is common practice for many performers, she’s pulling a double shift at the Fringe. At lunchtimes, she’s performing in Brexit, a new satire up at the Pleasance, before heading down to The Stand for her evening solo gig. Back in 2012 when a different political hoo-hah was on satirists’ minds, Caulfield starred in Coalition, by the same writing team. In Brexit, she shares the stage with Timothy Bentick (better known as David Archer), Hal Cruttenden, Pippa Evans and Mike McShane. What made her turn thesp again?
“I’m often asked to do plays, but they go ‘will you do three weeks rehearsal?’ No!”
“I’m doing this one because it’s a funny script, with a character who’s very similar to me. I’m the EU negotiator, saying to Britain ‘you can’t have that’ so I get a lot of sarky lines. I do two days, and then do two run-throughs in front of an audience in London and then come up here. Otherwise, I don’t know what on earth actors do all day!”
No shonky Eurotrash accent though. “There’s a whole backstory whereby I’ve been educated at an international school so it doesn’t matter that I’m not foreign.”
The problem with planning ahead for topical comedy at the Fringe, apart from there being lots of other shows with the same idea, is “events, dear boy!” There’ll be some shifty shenanigans going on in the corridors of Brussels and Westminster as we speak, so are they prepared for an emergency rewrite?
“One of the guys who’s written it was a Labour councillor and has worked in politics all his life. He’s a lawyer as well, so he knows very well what could be the possible outcomes. One of the scenarios of the play is what may happen. And that’s all I can say…”
The Fringe is known for its chaos and its burnouts, its illnesses and its hangovers, and doing two shows obviously multiplies those dangers. Experience can mitigate it, and domestic comfort can help too, so has the Fringe changed for Caulfield now she lives here?
“Well, it doesn’t hurt to be at home. Normally, you’re living in someone else’s flat, not doing the normal things you’d do. Basically you’re living like a pig. But this is where I live, so I still have to do the housework, wash the dishes and look after it. I can’t wreck it and leave in a month.”
“Going across the Royal Mile, that’s when I become a local, complaining about people and annoyed. And then I think, ‘but they’ve come to the festival, Jo, and you’re doing a show!'”
Has years of experience and the domestic routine taken the nervous edge off things? Does she casually rock up to the day job after a spot of housework or is she still operating on adrenaline?
“Oh no, still adrenaline. Every audience is different.”
“Sometimes the audience becomes like an organic matter, they all catch on to each other somehow. Other nights, they just want to have a good time and it’s not that much to do with me. Sometimes I think ‘it’s not that funny!'”
“I don’t do a preview. I used to, but now I feel the preview night feels like a rehearsal and I don’t want to rehearse stand-up, I want to perform. The first night, you’re full of adrenaline and that makes the show good. Even the bits you’re still working out. Rather than going ‘I’ve got this night to work it out,’ it has to work tonight.”
As someone who’s been there, done that, you might expect Caulfield to have some sage words about the state of the scene. You wouldn’t be disappointed. The Free Fringe has been one of the big developments during Caulfield’s Fringe career – “a breath of fresh air”, as she calls it – and her take on it brings out the DIY spirit again. It should be affordable for performers AND audiences.
“I don’t like comedians doing the bucket speech thing. ‘If you go uptown you’ll be paying £15 or £20’… Well, not a lot of shows are £15 or £20. Also, this isn’t uptown. You’re not as good as that person. This environment isn’t as nice. You’ve all suddenly decided that it’s OK for you to demand not just whatever people want to give, but a minimum of £5. £5 is a maximum in that environment! That’s not the spirit of it. Now you’ve made people think they need to give £5 or £10, they might go to less shows. Comics should be careful. They could ruin it for themselves.”
She’s no less forthright about some performers’ motivations for being in Edinburgh.
“You have to come because you want to do a show. There’s a lot of people going, ‘Right, I’m throwing everything at it! This is my year!’ and then they’re the people who have breakdowns.”
“Some people don’t really want to be stand-ups, they want to be something else that you can get from being a stand-up, whereas I really, really like stand-up. I like the autonomy of it, and being self-employed and not reliant on somebody liking me, somebody on TV. I can get on and do my own thing. I don’t want to do just anything on telly, and I think some people would. Maybe I’m too punk rock in my attitude. I thought the deal was – you can do what you want. You don’t have to be somebody’s performing monkey.”
A modern part of that careerist cycle, the scramble to be the performing monkey, are the quick win gags that get column inches, build a bit of profile, and hopefully, lead to a panel show spot. It’s no surprise when she says that Dave’s Joke of the Fringe is “one of the most annoying things”.
“They’re always either nicked jokes or not very good jokes. A lot of them are Gary Delaney jokes that somebody else is doing. It’s agents or PR people sending in a joke. You’re not going round every show to see which is the best. You don’t know enough about comedy to know that’s an old joke, or that’s somebody else’s joke or that’s not even a very good joke. It’s so… reductive.”
“But, it’s a ‘comedians’ thing. I was so annoyed by the Dave list, I had a device where I read out some one-liners in my show. The audience didn’t really understand. They’re going, ‘well, she seems really annoyed by this Dave thing. We don’t know what it is, but she’s a comedian, so surely she’d like a joke competition?’ It was one of those things that was too much a comedians thing.”
Does she see herself beyond these lists and awards and star ratings and the whole malarkey these days? A loyal following and a certain level of profile must inure a comedian to it in some ways?
“Not… beyond. I think it’s not healthy. I don’t think it’s mentally healthy to let that into your head. I know I do good shows and I know that people come and that’s what it’s about. All that stuff… I feel who are you to judge me?”
“When I used to be in a band, the music press – NME and Sounds and Mojo as it was then – really, really knew about music. They were so passionate about it, their knowledge was immense. They might not always be right, but at least I respected their knowledge. Then stand-up came along, and a lot of these reviewers don’t know much about comedy. A lot of them I have absolutely no respect for at all.”
“At the same time, it’s part of the business. People go ‘I never read them, I never look,’ but then you see the stars on their poster, so somebody did! You can’t say you’re completely out of the loop unless you’re Daniel Kitson. ‘There’s my flyer, it’s all black, I’m not telling you where I’m performing.’ But he knows his people will find him so he can do that.”
But lest anyone think Caulfield herself has any envy of others’ fame or profile, she’s remarkably magnanimous towards everyone she mentions. Even some that might raise an eyebrow…
“You get horrible attacks about Michael McIntyre. But you can’t say he’s not brilliant, he is. You watch him on stage. He’s just joy on stage. And he worked really hard.”
“It all became second hand, like hack backlash. ‘I’ve heard what he’s like.’ But you haven’t even seen his act!”
There’s mixed feelings about McIntyre on our team. We’ve just given him five stars for his Big World Tour, though some of us from that part of the world have unrepeatable things to say about his Yorkshire routine. Caulfield makes a good case in his defence:
“Women don’t remember routines. Women don’t sit around and do the words to Withnail & I. It’s very blokey. But I was on a bus in London and I heard these women doing his routine. The jeans one. I thought, wow! Because he’s camp and funny and very observational, he’s totally tapped into that female market. They love it so much, they’re doing it to each other, like I remember doing French & Saunders at school. Those people weren’t being played to and now they are.”
Caulfield’s obviously a lifer, a comic who will be touring clubs as long as she’s got an audience. Hearing her talk about stand-up, you can sense her love for it and the graft that keeps her at the top of her game.
“The thing about stand-up is you have to be doing it to be good. You can’t take your foot off the pedal. It has to keep evolving. Stand up will move away from you. You see that with people who’ve taken long breaks. They went off and did a sitcom and then they come back. They’re rusty and they don’t realise it’s changed.”
“Stand-up now is very in the moment, and the audience expect to believe you. Doesn’t mean it has to be true, but they want to believe it is. You have to be very present. I see some comics of my generation and I think ‘you’re not present’. This sounds like ‘material’. You can’t be like that any more. You can’t just dish it out in your suit.”
“Audiences get an instinct about people that makes them go with them and believe them and feel they know you.”
It’s that instinct that makes audiences go with Jo Caulfield, and why, when The Stand opens its doors again this year, they’ll be back again for more. As one audience member said of last year's show, “finally, we’ve seen something funny!”
Interview I did with 'Last Night I Dreamt Of..." website. Talking about Edinburgh Festival and my 'Killing Time' show.
Me: Tell us more about yourself and your forthcoming Edinburgh Show Killing Time?
Jo: It’s a stand-up comedy show. There will be NO bells or whistles. There will be jokes, observations and opinionated nonsense. I am right about everything. I will also be wearing a new top.
Me: How would you describe your comedy in ten words?
Jo: Acerbic, opinionated, sarcastic, “not mean-spirited”, “a celebration of anger”.
Me: As a Fringe regular, what’s your favourite thing about performing at the festival?
Jo: Not travelling! I live in Leith so I can walk to the venue and walk home. Sleeping in my own bed. Catching up with comedian friends I haven’t seen for years. It’s the strange thing about the UK comedy circuit, you can be on the same bill with one comedian every week for a couple of months and bond with them, then not see them again for several years. The mix of the audience. All ages all races, all different walks of life, all coming together for comedy. It’s like you know the tune you’re going to play but you don’t know what instruments you’re going to have till the show starts. That is a great analogy until you know that the only instrument I can play is the drums…..and not even very well. I love that I can do a new hour every year and that people will come back again and again. There is no bigger compliment for a comic than people saying “See you next year” on the way out.
Me: Who else are you looking forward to seeing perform live at the festival?
Jo: Along with my stand-up show at 7.40pm, I’m doing a play every lunchtime (‘Brexit’ – a political satire), so there’ll be very little time to catch many other shows. When I do get a spare couple of hours, I like to take a chance on something different, pick someone I don’t know and just be open to a new experience. This has lead to me seeing some terrible shows, it’s not a reliable method, but I have also been pleasantly surprised. On my day-off I will definitely go and see Eleanor Tiernan (1.40pm, Banshee Labyrinth) and Joke Thieves (8.30pm, Cabaret Voltaire). It’s a bit of a busman’s holiday for a comedian to watch other comedians but these two shows always make me laugh loud and hard.
Me: We both grew up in Leicestershire before escaping. What are your fondest memories of growing up in the county and leaving it?
Jo: I ended up in Leicestershire or more correctly Rutland. I usually say Leicestershire as most people don’t think Rutland is a real place. I grew up in the Air Force, well not me, my Dad was in the Air Force; that means you move every two years. My most formative years, 14-17, were spent in a village near Oakham. Yes, read that sentence again and feel the teenage despair. The nearest big town was barely a small town. Luckily I had a mate with a van, this meant we could get to Nottingham and Leicester for gigs. I remember we went in the van to see the B52’s, I hadn’t asked where they were playing. I was 15 and still at school. We were half way there when I realised we were driving to London. They were on at the Hammersmith Palais. I can’t stress the importance of having a friend with transport… well, one friend had a van and one had something uninsurable that was always breaking down. This opened up a whole world of music gigs, parties and cider drinking. An old friend recently sent me some photos of that time. She put “Jo as usual in an outfit she has made herself that is falling apart”. I used to buy all my clothes from charity shops and hand sew things, very Molly Ringwald; but my outfits would start to unravel and fall apart as the night went on.
Me: What was the best thing about being a television warm-up and if you could have anyone, living or dead, warm up for you, who would you choose and why?
Jo: TV warm-up is a strange thing. The audience aren’t there to see you. You’re servicing the show. You can be halfway through a joke, just about to hit the punchline, when the producer cuts you off coz the scene is ready. You have to keep everything short and sharp and punchy. The best thing was doing the warm-up on The Graham Norton Show. I ended up getting asked to join Graham’s writing team. Five series later I was still there. It was an amazing job: the show went to New York and LA. I racked up a mountain of air-miles! Oh – that and the sandwiches in the Green Room. They’re always good. If I had a warm-up I’d pick Jack Dee….for no other reason than he makes me laugh.
Me: Your extensive CV appears to cover all aspects of working in comedy I can possibly think of but are there any comedy ambitions you are yet to fulfil?
Jo: Simple = To get better. You’re never fully-formed as a comedian. There’s no end result in comedy. So my ambition is to keep being funny. I’ve done all sorts of different things on radio and TV, and I’m always open to any work that I think is worth doing, but I’m quite choosy about what I accept. I couldn’t imagine not being a Stand Up. It’s me talking about me, and that’s my favourite subject. I was on Celebrity Mastermind last year and I suggested ‘Jo Caulfield’ as my specialist subject. The producer laughed. To this day I still have no idea why he found that funny.
Me: What’s coming up for you next after the Fringe?
JO: No rest for the wicked! I’m straight into recording another series of ‘Stop The Press” for BBC Radio Scotland in early September. After that I’m hoping for a couple of weeks of lying down and not talking. Last year I ended up in Hamburg, then Lisbon. (I highly recommend both if you haven’t been)… then it’s Christmas, then it’s New Year, then I start putting down notes for Edinburgh Fringe 2019!!
Jo Caulfield will be performing at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe in Killing Time from 3 to 26 August at The Stand Comedy Club 3 & 4 and in Brexit from 1 to 26 in the Pleasance Courtyard.
Recording "Just A Minute" - August 2018
Me and "a bloke".
Fred MacAulay and Mark Watson
A happy audience.
Barnardos Scotland Comedy Benefit - August 2018
Me talking about "stuff".
Me and a Barnardos Scotland-person.
Tuesday, May 01, 2018
My sister, Annie Caulfield, died of cancer in November 2016. I wrote 5 articles that got published in Standard Issue. I'm putting them up here -- if you're going through or have gone through the same heartbreaking experience, they may help you. You are not alone. x
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"Grief is not what I thought it would be" (My Sister: Part 3 of 5)
In November 2017, we had to say goodbye to our wonderful Annie Caulfield. Her sister Jo Caulfield talks about dealing with the grief.
This is probably not a fun read. Just to warn you, so you don’t read it with the tone of voice. Like a newsreader who hasn’t read ahead and is unaware that it’s not a fun puppy story – the puppy drowns.
My sister died of cancer aged 57.
Immediately that seems such a melodramatic statement, but death is as dramatic as it gets. It’s the end. I am the first person to shout “drama queen!” in this modern ‘selfie’ world of oversharing, but now I can’t stop myself. Maybe writing about it will stop these thoughts going round and round in my brain.
It’s like a punch in the stomach, about two or three times an hour. “Fuck. I didn’t know you were going to die.” I miss her so much. But more than how much I miss her, is how much I hate that she died.
I find it hard to say out loud, maybe that’s what this is about. It’s too awful to say. Which now sounds very overdramatic and ‘actressy’. I say actressy as a pejorative, obviously.
I’m a comedian. I enjoy making strangers laugh. I am very mistrustful of people who enjoy telling strangers how sad they feel. I’m also aware I am not unique. I don’t have a monopoly on grief. In the league table of deaths I don’t think a sibling is top. Not above a child, a suicide, your parents when you’re young or the love of your life, but it’s in the top five. It’s a place in the Champions League.
Nor am I writing this for sympathy. I’m OK; I’m alive. I’m writing it because grief is weird and not what I thought it would be. It is not weepy or sentimental or delicate. Well, mine isn’t. Mine is angry and deeply sad, yet able to walk around as if it’s not there.
It is there; it’s there all the time. It’s odd to walk about with such a huge, raw feeling and people not know it’s there. Ordering drinks at a bar, renewing my car insurance, talking to a woman who’s hired me for an after-dinner speech. I want to say, “Two bottles of Peroni, please, and my sister died six weeks ago.”
And I feel so stupid for not knowing that she was going to die. Not just in the hospice but all our lives. That I went about my business not knowing that my sister would only have 57 years. Like a film where I didn’t see the ending coming. “No! And then… What? She just dies?” What an idiot I am.
It even felt like there must be someone I could go to. “Excuse me but Annie Caulfield died, that’s a mistake, isn’t it?”
What a dumb ass! If only I had known. I would have… I don’t know what. Stuck to her like glue? Clung to her? Oh god, ’clung’ is very melodramatic again. But I would have. And Annie would have said, “What the hell are you doing?”
“Annie was always brave, all her life, because she would be scared and wrong – often wrong – but she’d just jump in and do it anyway. She was my big sister and she knew best.”
I had thought there would be a lot more crying. I am a big cryer. Music, films, that NSPCC ad on TV, all have me blubbing like a fool, but I haven’t cried that much over my sister’s death. Or I’ve cried differently, a dry heave that comes from deep within my belly then rolls up through me and then I sob, huge slow sobs that seem like men overacting in films when they’ve been asked to cry.
How could she just die? It’s the permanence following something so random. And the speed. It now seems so fast. She was diagnosed with cancer and 20 months later, she passed away.
I blame all those celebrities jumping about in T-shirts saying, “Let’s smash cancer”; “We’re beating cancer”. Annie was so sure she would.
There’s an ad on TV advising that if you have a cough that hangs around it could be lung cancer; get yourself checked. Annie never, ever had a fucking cough. She had back pain. She went to an osteopath who said it was her posture, sitting writing all day. It wasn’t, it was a tumour in her lung pressing on her spine.
I remember her mentioning that back pain for months; that’s months she went undiagnosed. If we had known. If we had known what we know now about how cancer can manifest itself she might have been treated in time, she might have lived. And, if I can be selfish, I would still have had that one person in the world who is like me. Like me but braver.
She was always brave, all her life, because she would be scared and wrong – often wrong – but she’d just jump in and do it anyway. She was my big sister and she knew best. Even when I knew she didn’t, I followed her around happily, wagging my tail, just content to be with her, having adventures.
I remember being shocked when she’d gone shoplifting, shocked but impressed. So much eyeshadow – we were rich!
When I was 16 we went hitching round Europe. Not inter-railing, hitchhiking. Two young women alone, it never occurred to me that it wasn’t a great idea. Only when we were jumping out of a moving lorry as it slowed down on a hairpin bend in the Swiss Alps did I think, “Maybe Annie doesn’t always know best…” We were sexually harassed across five countries but we had great stories. Annie always had great stories. She was always exciting to be around.
It must be wonderful to believe in an afterlife. Unfortunately, I don’t and neither did Annie. Someone at her funeral tried to tell me that her electricity and aura were still living on in the world and I wanted to smack them in the mouth. Obviously people mean well. They think it will be comforting, but it just seemed such banal rubbish. It belittled the awfulness of Annie not being alive anymore. Any talk of her ‘looking down on me’ just makes me angry. I know – I am not easy to comfort.
Conversely I was talking to a friend of mine who lost his wife to cancer 10 years ago. I said how sad I felt and he replied, “It’s just a huge gaping hole in your life that can never be filled.”
I laughed and laughed. It was so funny to have someone be honest and not even try to be remotely comforting. And yet it was comforting. I’d wanted someone to say what I was thinking.
People acknowledging Annie’s death – sending cards, texts and emails – has been a comfort. I would recommend sending sympathy cards, even if you don’t know what to say; just say that. It’s just old-fashioned good manners and I was very grateful to people who did it.
A big sister is always ahead of you in life, making your path easier. I am so grateful to Annie for being a good sister. Even if sometimes it was learning the hard way. (Don’t drink vodka with no food just because your sister does – you are only 13.)
I don’t know if I will get to live to be an old lady but I do know I will have to learn how to be one by myself. Because my sister died of cancer aged 57.
Please consider donating to the Macmillan tribute fund set up by Jo in Annie’s name. https://macmillan.tributefunds.com/annie-caulfield
Sunday, April 15, 2018
My sister, Annie Caulfield, died of cancer in November 2016. I wrote 5 articles that got published in Standard Issue. I'm putting them up here -- if you're going through or have gone through the same heartbreaking experience, they may help you. You are not alone.
“I haven’t finished talking to you yet” (My Sister: Part 2 of 5)
Four months since the death of her sister Annie, Jo Caulfield is navigating situations she didn’t even realise existed.
If making an arse of yourself by bawling your eyes out in public is one of the stages of grief then I have that one down pat.
It’s four months since my sister died of cancer.
My train had been cancelled and that, for some reason, immediately made me cry. My big sister died and now my train is cancelled – that’s just too much to cope with. I was crying as I asked the guard which platform for the London train. He explained it very clearly and gently. He seemed to think I was crying because the cancellation meant I had to change at Bristol Parkway.
“It’s a very easy station to change at,” he said. He was so nice about it I started crying again.
There are new situations that I haven’t learnt how to navigate. They just hit you. You don’t know they’re coming. I was about to be the entertainment at a posh charity do. All women; women so posh they seem like a different species. Clothes that were clearly expensive, bright green, orange, but they may have been wearing them since 1972.
The lady next to me reminded me of Princess Margaret: fun, perma-tan, knocking back the wine, with something tragic but stoic about her. Her facelift meant the bottom of her face didn’t really move. Or maybe that’s just the way posh people hold their faces. Her son had been to Iraq in the army; my brother had been to Iraq in the air force.
“Have you just a brother?” she asked me.
“No, I’ve a sister as well…” Tears shot into my eyes. Shit. “I had a sister; she passed away recently, I’m sorry… I’ve never said that before.”
“I suppose I am only just realising that this will go on forever. A bright, crisp spring day makes me think of her, how much she would have loved a day like that. She’d go striding through London telling tourists to get out of her way.”
She held my hand; well, she grabbed it, held it hard and said, “That’s awful. Awful.” The fact that her facelift meant she couldn’t display much emotion was actually helpful; I could get myself together as they were about to introduce me.
She was an only child, but told me she had lost her best friend to cancer 20 years ago. She understood. She knew. She was the perfect person to have that moment with, answering that question for the first time. She doesn’t know it, but I will remember her forever.
I still haven’t worked out what I’ll say the next time it inevitably happens, but everyone must go through that. It’s not just that it’s still too painful to say out loud, it’s also the effect on the other person – it seems unfair to put that on them.
They’re just engaging in harmless small talk and you lay a big drama on them. But at the same time, I have/had a sister. How do people phrase it? And what about photos? I don’t have any photos up at home because we’re redecorating, I spent ages worrying about putting up photos again. Finally I realised that everyone I know knows that she has gone and why would a visiting gasman ask. I’m an idiot!
My husband put some music on my iPod, music I really like, punk versions of great female anthems. I put on a punk version of Cher’s Believe. My husband came back to find me doubled up, crying from my gut. Music just wires itself straight to your emotions, like a bottle of red wine in one shot. Note to self: maybe don’t listen to music for a while.
Sometimes you know to prepare yourself but it still doesn’t work. An old mutual friend of mine and Annie’s emailed me to say he was in London doing a play and we must meet up. He and my sister had kept in touch, he had moved to America and I hadn’t seen him for 25 years.
I told myself: this will be emotional; we were all friends a long time ago, when we were young and thought we’d all be around forever. After the show I went up to him and was immediately a mess, a deluge of snotty tears and blubbering nonsense.
He tried to get me to sit down: ”Let’s take a bit of time…”
I bailed. I knew it was impossible; it was too much for me.
Walking to the tube my friend Daniel said, “Well, that’s one way to get out of the post-show, ‘You were marvellous darling’ conversation.”
My sister would have loved that. My knees buckled with that happy-sad cry that gives way to hysterical laughter.
I suppose I am only just realising that this will go on forever. A bright, crisp spring day makes me think of her, how much she would have loved a day like that. She’d go striding through London telling tourists to get out of her way. So many of us lose people we love before their time.
I think the rest of my life will be time she should have had. Things are different, forever.
I’m still angry. The adverts that say, “We’re walking over cancer.” Fuck off, we’re not – that’s what I think every time I see them. They make me irrationally angry. Obviously I want people to raise money for Cancer Research. It’s wonderful that people do.
But I hate those ads. It feels like a criticism of people that don’t survive cancer. Like a judgement. The dirty little secret, they don’t want you to mention. That people are still dying from cancer, every day. That it is a horrible, grotesque, merciless disease.
I find myself thinking about her last months.
In animal documentaries they often talk about wild animals dragging themselves off to die alone, away from the herd. I always thought that sounded noble and dignified but seeing people dying of cancer, I realised why they wanted to die alone. They know they are weak and vulnerable and the other animals could hurt them.
“A very close friend of Annie’s also likes to talk about her and that is a huge help. We both knew her so well that we know what she would think about things and people; we tell stories about her and if we get upset it’s just part of the conversation.
Sometimes people will do that too; they are so frightened that they lash out at those they love or withdraw into themselves. My sister did that briefly, she was so scared, so vulnerable, I don’t know what she imagined me or my brother would do?
Maybe if we had fallen apart it would have been too much for her. Or maybe she was afraid we would kill her hope, say what was really happening. She had to keep making plans that envisaged a successful outcome. Once she saw we were just being ‘normal’, she was herself again. (So if that happens, remember it’s not to do with you.)
And those thoughts and memories make my grief seem indulgent and selfish. When I think about everything she went through. How brave and funny she was. How grateful she was to her Macmillan nurse. How she kept saying how amazing the NHS was. “They’re spending hundreds of thousands of pounds on me!”
But I also know that her ego would want her to be missed, and talked about and celebrated. So I will go on missing her. I won’t try to get rid of these thoughts.
I find myself talking to Annie in my head all the time. Usually nothing profound.
“There’s some old posh ladies staying in this Travelodge, they are confused by everything, you’d love them. One of them just said, ‘The only thing we ever fell out over was marmalade.’”
“I’ve just started watching Prison Break, did you like it?”
“I haven’t finished talking to you yet.”
Some people don’t like to talk about the person they’ve lost. I do. But you have to have the right person to talk to. A very close friend of Annie’s also likes to talk about her and that is a huge help. We both knew her so well that we know what she would think about things and people; we tell stories about her and if we get upset it’s just part of the conversation. But actually we don’t usually get upset; it’s more like we both get to spend time with her again. If you find a person like that, it’s very precious and it does help.
Annie has left behind her partner and his loss is so much greater than mine. Strangely that’s comforting, which makes me sound like an absolute bitch, but I mean it’s comforting because it was a bonus to have/had/have a sister I love so much. As trite as it sounds, it’s better to have loved and lost… Christ I can’t believe I wrote that – but it is true.
It’s also true that talking to other people who have felt this same degree of loss helps too. Like my Princess Margaret lady. I knew she knew and that was enough.
It’s four months since my sister died of cancer.
Annie’s Macmillan tribute fund is linked below if you would like to donate. Macmillan helped us all, and we will be forever grateful. I can’t imagine how hard it would have been for Annie to have gone through this without them.